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Sudan says it will firmly deal with law-breaking protesters

By HAMZA HENDAWIDecember 21, 2018

CAIRO (AP) — Sudan’s government said it was doing everything it could to deal with shortages of basic food items and services, but warned it would not hesitate to deal firmly with anyone breaking the law, a reference to violent street protests this week over deteriorating economic conditions.

Breaking its silence on the unrest, government spokesman Bishara Gomaa acknowledged in a late Thursday statement that there were deaths during Wednesday and Thursday’s protests in a number of Sudanese cities, but he gave no details. At least 20 protesters have been detained in the protests and scores were wounded.

The official Sudan News Agency on Friday said schools in the Sudanese capital Khartoum would be indefinitely closed starting Sunday.

London-based rights group Amnesty International in a Friday statement said at least nine people were killed in the unrest, six in the eastern city of Gadaref, two in Karima north of Khartoum and one in Barbar, also north of the capital.

Sudanese media reports also put the death toll in Gadaref at six, but this, like the Amnesty’s toll, could not be independently confirmed.

“Opening fire on unarmed protesters cannot be justified and what is clearly needed now is an independent, efficient investigation into these events. All those responsible for unnecessary or excessive use of force, including those with command responsibility, must be brought to justice,” said Seif Magango, Amnesty’s deputy director for east Africa.

Calling on the Khartoum government to releases detained protesters, Magango said: “It must address the root cause of the rapidly deteriorating economic conditions in the country instead of trying to prevent people from fully exercising their right to protest against the growing hardships they are facing.”

The protests were chiefly about the shortage of, and higher prices of, bread, but popular resentment has been simmering for weeks over Sudan’s worsening economic conditions following a devaluation of the currency in October. It caused inflation rates to spike, fuel shortages and a liquidity crunch that forced the government to place a ceiling on bank withdrawals leading to long lines at ATMs across the country.

In keeping with the government’s response to similar past protests, Thursday’s statement offered no details on how authorities intended to tackle the country’s economic crisis and included familiar charges that the opposition was taking advantage of the anger on the streets for political gain.

“Some political parties have reared their heads in an attempt to take advantage of these conditions to undermine security and stability in support of their political agenda,” said the statement, carried by the official Sudan News Agency.

It said the government was continuing to undertake its duty to provide commodities and services while tackling the bread and fuel shortages. “The government will not tolerate sabotage or hesitate to firmly deal with chaos and law-breaking and calls on citizens and families to stay alert.”

This week’s protests coincided with the return to Sudan of opposition leader Sadeq al-Mahdi, the country’s last freely elected leader, whose government was overthrown in a 1989 military coup led by army general Bashir. Al-Mahdi was living in self-imposed exile outside Sudan for nearly a year. Thousands of his supporters welcomed him home Wednesday.

Addressing supporters, al-Mahdi proposed the formation of a national unity government to tackle the country’s chronic economic problems and the internal displacement of Sudanese as a result of violence.

The protests also follow the start of a campaign by lawmakers loyal to Bashir to rally support for an amendment to the constitution to allow the Sudanese leader, in power for nearly three decades, to run for re-election in 2020.

Bashir was indicted in 2010 by the International Criminal Court for genocide during the conflict in Sudan’s western Darfur region which began in 2003, and is blamed for at least 200,000 deaths.

Sudan’s economy has struggled for most Bashir’s 29-year rule, which has failed to unite or keep the peace in the religiously and ethnically diverse nation. The country’s security situation rapidly deteriorated after the secession of the mainly animist and Christian south of the country in 2011, which deprived Khartoum of most of its oilfields. The secession came after decades of a costly war between the south and the mainly Muslim and Arabized north.

In his latest bid to secure aid and investments, Bashir has in recent years strengthened ties to oil-rich Gulf Arab nations, especially Saudi Arabia. He has deployed Sudanese troops in Yemen to fight alongside a Saudi-led coalition backing the government there against Iran-aligned rebels.

Bashir has also curbed relations with Iran, Saudi Arabia’s regional archrival, to win the goodwill of Riyadh and its Gulf Arab allies. He also moved to mend relations with Egypt, Sudan’s powerful neighbor to the north, after a period of tension mostly because of a long-running dispute over an Egyptian-held border area claimed by Sudan.

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